John Doe, the guy who formed one half of X’s front line next to Exene Cervenka more than 30 years ago, is still on the scene, doing what he does best on his new solo album, Keeper (Yep Roc). With all four of its original members (Doe, Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebreak) on board, the best band to emerge from L.A.’s punk scene is slated to perform an impressive schedule of live shows this fall that includes a South American tour with Pearl Jam. Doe, who will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week, spoke with us from his Northern California home.
“Walking Out The Door” (download):
MAGNET: You’ve had a front-row seat for a lot of great stuff over the years. Does it amaze you that X is still firing on all four cylinders more than 30 years later?
Doe: Absolutely. The fact that we’ve survived and still have the same band members. And that I still have enough creative juice to make a record every two or three years. I see a lot of people, not just in music but entertainment in general, and you’re reasonably lucky if you’re still around in five years. You may be on top right now, but you’re gonna be lucky to even have a career.
How’s Exene feeling these days? I saw the last two “Xmas With X” shows at Slim’s in San Francisco, and she looked and sounded terrific.
She’s great. The short version is that she’s stronger than ever. And that’s the mysterious thing about it. At this point, there’s still the question what form of [multiple sclerosis] she has. She’s still going forward. We’ve got a Los Angeles tour and an East Coast tour. Then I’m doing some solo stuff on the West Coast. Then X is going down to South America with Pearl Jam. Then I do the East Coast for my solo record and X is doing Christmas shows on the West Coast.
Your new solo album has three female accompanists: Patty Griffin, Jill Sobule and Cindy Wasserman. Your voice blends so well with a woman. You keep doing it, so you must agree.
I think it complements my voice, especially in a romantic setting. If I was a different person, singing with a guy would be great, but I’m not that adventurous. I’m a little traditional. You know, I’ve got a good voice, but not one that is quirky or one that has a strange tone like Macy Gray or Bob Dylan. Either a good voice with a good tone to it or a not-so-good voice with an appealing aspect to it, like Serge Gainsbourg.
Or Lou Reed.
Yeah, or Lou Reed. They’re communicators. I just find I sound better with a little quirkier musical arrangement and another voice to add the higher pitch to it. Or maybe I’ve just become accustomed to it, I don’t know. I definitely feel lucky to have people like Patty Griffin and Jill Sobule and Cindy Wasserman. The Patty Griffin thing was really lucky. She was available while she was on tour with the Band Of Joy. Oh, you’re gonna be singing with Robert Plant later on? And you’ll be singing with me in the afternoon?
[Laughs] No, no. I like Robert Plant.
No, I like him too, but you don’t sound anything like Robert Plant.
That’s true. So that’s my take on it. With a woman singing on some songs or a man singing on some songs, you get the character that’s being sung about, the narrator and the other person being sung about, and you get to hear their voice, as well. Not to get too intellectual about it. Basically, it sounds good and feels good, and it’s fun. And it adds dimension to the story being told. Or with Jill, who has this incredible exuberance, she just ups the ante that I couldn’t do.
When I first saw X in the early ’80s, even then I had this feeling that someday you might do something with a country edge to it. Did you grow up on that stuff at home?
You know my parents didn’t play it. They actually liked classical. Maybe that’s more evidence for past lives. When I heard it back in Baltimore in the ’50s and ’60s it was unavoidable. There were songs on the popular radio. What was one? “From A Jack To A King” (by Ned Miller) and this song called “Walk On By” (by Leroy Van Dyke). When I heard it, it just kind of clicked. Later on, you gravitate toward what you can do. I couldn’t sing like Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding. I hope to do another record with the Sadies, a great band. We didn’t pick any obscure country songs for that one, just well-known ones.
Are you more at peace with yourself these days?
I think it’s important, once you get over 40 to have some satisfaction [that you don’t have to] maintain this level of “angry young man,” that life isn’t fair, that sorta stuff. You have to accept certain things and have to understand them and change what you can. And that’s what this record is kind of about. It’s not settling, but it’s finding a way to be happy and still be able to write songs. For two years after things began to change for me on a personal level, I didn’t even give a shit about writing songs. “What? I’m happy.” And then I suddenly realized, “Oh, wait a minute. I do that for a living.” I need to find out about writing songs where people are loved and there is some happiness. Without it being some lightweight, la-di-dah song. I’m not afraid of that. What’s somebody gonna do, call me a sissy?
How’s the movie career going? Still doing it?
Not a whole lot. But there was a movie called Hated that I worked on that won some award at the Williamsburg Film Festival. I played the manager of an up-and-coming rock band, a shitty, lying, cheating, dealing manager. It was really fun. I had a nasty little pony tail. But I haven’t been doing many auditions. I just got tired of the bullshit. There’s a lot of competition unless you don’t have a good agent. Jesse Dayton, who’s in Austin, made a zombie movie, so I got to be in a zombie movie, Zombex. The premise of it is that a drug manufacturer is distributing kind-of Prozac to Katrina victims, and it actually turns them into flesh-eating zombies—not just your pharmaceutical kind of zombie.
I saw Zombieland recently, and they’ve changed the zombie parameters. These guys were moving really fast. Were yours speedy or did they stagger?
They did both. I didn’t really get to see many zombies. I was the guy telling the lead character, “Be careful. Shit’s coming down the pipe.”